Today, the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus will gather in the state capitol to demand a fix to New York's broken marijuana possession law. They'll be joined by dozens of advocates and impacted people from around the state who are calling on Gov. Cuomo and state leaders to finally pass sensible reforms.
Reform is urgently needed. Back in 1977, New York State removed criminal penalties for private possession of marijuana and made possession in public view a criminal offense. For years afterwards, there were relatively few arrests in New York for possession of marijuana in public view -- 1990 saw about 1,000 such arrests. But by last year, that number had skyrocketed to 45,000 arrests -- an astonishing increase.
These arrests occur because the current law is being applied ineffectively and inappropriately, especially during "stop and frisk" encounters in New York City -- where marijuana possession in public view has become the number one arrest in the city. Since Michael Bloomberg became mayor in 2002, there have been nearly 500,000 arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana in public view -- that's more arrests than all of three previous administrations of Mayors Dickens, Koch, and Giuliani combined.
The human and fiscal costs to these arrests are staggering. Statewide, nearly 85 percent of all people arrested are black and Latino, even though studies show that young whites use marijuana at higher rates. In fact, New York City -- along with Buffalo and Syracuse -- have among the highest rates of racial disparities for marijuana arrests anywhere in the entire country. And most of these arrested are young people who haven't been involved with the criminal justice before. Seventy percent of those arrested in New York for possessing small amounts of marijuana are under 30 years of age -- which means every year, tens of thousands of young people are being saddled with lifelong, permanent criminal records. And who foots the bill for this nonsense? Taxpayers, at a cost of nearly $75 million last year alone and more than $600 million in the last decade.
In his 2013 State of the State Address, Gov. Andrew Cuomo outlined a sensible proposal for reform: decriminalize possession of up to 15 grams of marijuana in public view; burning or smoking marijuana in public would remain a misdemeanor. Cuomo rightly gained national attention for his leadership on the issue. Fixing the law would help end the ugly practice of police, during a stop-and-frisk encounter, demanding that a person "empty their pockets" and then arrest the person for possessing marijuana in "public view." Fixing the law will bring us closer to ending racially discriminatory marijuana arrest practices. And it will help to focus our limited resources more effectively.
Gov. Cuomo's reform proposal enjoys unusually broad support in New York: dozens of community organizations throughout the state, state legislators, New York City Council members, and Mayor Bloomberg have all expressed their support. So, too, has law enforcement from across the state: NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, all five NYC District Attorneys (Democrat and Republican) and District Attorneys from Long Island, Buffalo, Albany, and police leaders like the Albany Sheriff and Rochester Police Chief have all called to reform New York's broken marijuana possession law. Numerous papers, including The New York Times, the Daily News, the New York Post, the Syracuse Times-Standard, and the Buffalo News have written editorials in support the of the reform. And a poll released today found that a large majority of New Yorkers from upstate and downstate and across the political spectrum support the reforms.
But despite all this support -- even backing from the governor -- nothing has changed, and too few leaders in Albany are even talking about the problem. That means it's time for action -- that's why the Caucus and community members from around the state are rallying today. Reform is long overdue, and the time for action is now. Because if nothing change, nothing changes.